5 steps to establish authentic core values

What are core values, and why does a company need them?

Sharon Harris, Global Chief Marketing Officer at marketing firm Jellyfish, outlines five quick-fire tips to build authentic workplace values.

A company’s values usually overlap with its vision, purpose, and mission, but at the same time, they are not one of those things. They run even deeper, and their presence (or lack thereof) can be seen in the most fundamental elements of business, such as communication between colleagues or the attitude employees bring to their work.

You could say that core values are what oil the gears of an organisation and keeps things running smoothly – or, in the case of their absence, what causes friction.

Core values could be as simple as “Integrity” (McDonald’s) or as thought-provoking as “great just isn’t good enough” (Google). Still, whatever they are, they should reflect the mindset that you want your company and employees to embody. When this works, it facilitates greater unity and agility at all levels.

The next question to be concerned about isn’t whether a company has core values because they all do. Instead, it’s about whether these values support the company’s goals. For that to happen, they need to be defined and cultivated intentionally, which provides not only a basis for accountability but also a benchmark for hiring. If you’re not sure what your values are, or if they aren’t authentic, how can you select from them or incentivise your people to act on them? That brings us to the central topic:

What are “authentic” values, and how do you make sure yours meet that definition?

Authentic values often fly beneath the radar. On the other hand, inauthentic ones are much easier to spot – for example, when a company claims to value the customer’s opinion but responds critically or impolitely to feedback. For values to be authentic, they need to represent what the company truly stands for, be modelled consistently, and be embraced throughout the ranks.

This is an ongoing process, and while it may look slightly different in practice from one organisation to the next, most can benefit from implementing these five steps:

1. Start with purpose

Even if the core values you want to establish are generic things like trust, equality, and resilience, they should still directly relate to the company’s larger goals. To make them authentic, in other words, and not just admirable ideals tacked onto the exterior of your business, you should start by defining what your company’s purpose is. Once you clearly articulate that, you’re in a much better position to decide what values need to be emphasised to accomplish it.

2. Be creative

Again, there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple (like McDonald’s), and there’s nothing wrong with going long and detailed (like Google). What you want to avoid is adopting another organisation’s values just because you think they sound good. The best core values are those you stick to, so making them totally unique isn’t a necessity, but it’s helpful to consider what makes your company unique and go from there. And remember – your core values should reflect the reality of your day-to-day operations, not just what you aspire to be. For instance, we can all agree that sustainability is an excellent value, but is it something your organisation really embodies?

3. Communicate your values

In the long run, a company should have the goal of embedding its core values into all aspects of doing business. Even when that best-case scenario is realised, though, there’s no reason to stop marketing them, both internally and externally. The more core values are present in daily operations, the more opportunities leaders have to point them out and explain their intrinsic importance to the big picture. Take those opportunities.

4. Listen, listen, listen

Values aren’t static. They are a part of human experience – something to be interacted with and affected by. Establishing authentic core values begins with a genuine, intentional approach, but it doesn’t end there; it’s vital to understand how those values are being received and interpreted by the stakeholders of your business, from employees and suppliers to investors and customers. Truly listening (not just waiting for your turn to respond) allows you to gain priceless insight into where your core values are acting as strengths or weaknesses. Apply this technique to all forms of feedback, but especially listen to what your customers and employees tell you with their words and actions.

5. Don’t be afraid of change

It’s a myth that a company’s vision, purpose, mission, or core values shouldn’t change over time. Societies change, economies change, people change – why shouldn’t businesses? In fact, unchanging core values have been at least partially responsible for many of the big failures we’ve seen over the last decades, as many markets transitioned to the three D’s of digitalised, decentralised, and democratised. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you should constantly fluctuate in your principles, but it’s a good idea to revisit your core values regularly and make sure they aren’t working against you in any way.

Final thoughts

There’s a lot more to be said about the importance of company values than can fit in a single article, but the bottom line is this: They will shape, and ultimately, define your company through their relationship with investor interest, workplace productivity, employee engagement, and customer loyalty (among other things).

As an aspect of business that affects so many interactions and guides so many decisions, the development and maintenance of core values deserve your full attention. Give them that, and you’ll see the benefits multiply.

woman of colour

Sharon Harris is Chief Marketing Officer of Jellyfish, working closely with global brands and their millions of customers worldwide to create their perfect digital partnerships. Over the last 10 years, she has operated as an executive in Microsoft, AOL, T-Mobile, and Deloitte, helping brands develop relationships and embrace digital transformation.

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